28/05/2018 12:03 SAST | Updated 31/05/2018 19:12 SAST

Springbok Rugby And The Meaning Of Siya Kolisi

South African rugby, like the country's society, comes from a deeply divided history. Siya Kolisi's appointment as Test captain is therefore a big moment.

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"Springbok Saga", that magnum opus about South African rugby published in the 1980s by journalist Chris Greyvenstein, was a mainstay on many Afrikaner bookshelves when I was growing up. It told the tale of the mighty Green and Gold; how the team from the southernmost tip of Africa took on their colonial masters at their own game and beat them.

The Bok journey really starts in 1906, when Paul Roos, a Latin teacher from Stellenbosch, was selected as captain of the very first team to be called "Springboks". His task was rugby as much as it was to unite an all-white team divided by the war of 1899 to 1902. "We aren't English-speaking nor Afrikaans-speaking, but a happy band of South Africans," he famously told the team before their departure to Britain.

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Paul Roos, the first Springbok rugby captain, in 1906. He led a team to Britain four years after the South African War concluded.

The book tells a story of triumph and glory, with the Springboks establishing themselves as the pre-eminent rugby-playing nation in the world, beating the All Blacks in New Zealand before the Second World War, and thumping them in South Africa in 1949, the year after the National Party won the election and introduced apartheid.

There are some bad patches, here and there. The Boks lost their first series only in 1956, in New Zealand, and inexplicably lost to the English and French — at home, nogal — in the 1970s. The tightening screws of international sanctions and condemnation of the government's apartheid policies also start to emerge in the second half of the book, with "anarchic protestors" blamed for the Springboks' struggles on their tours to Britain and Australia at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s.

It was during this time that Danie Craven realised that white rugby was unsustainable, and that the rugby community would have to reach out to the black and coloured rugby controlling bodies.

But the nadir of Springbok rugby came in 1974, when Willie John McBride's famous British Lions visited John Vorster's South Africa and thumped the pride of Afrikanerdom (and white South Africa) three-zip. As in 3-0. It was a national crisis. McBride's team was one of the first to play mixed-race teams, and Greyvenstein's book also carries a famous picture of legendary Welsh fullback J.P.R. Williams with black players from an invitational team called the Leopards.

It was during this time that Danie Craven, the heart and soul of South African rugby over many decades, realised that white rugby was unsustainable, and that the rugby community would have to reach out to the black and coloured rugby controlling bodies. His efforts, however, were thwarted and stalled by the petty-apartheid policy-peddling prime-ministership of BJ Vorster, and initially PW Botha as well.
Dr Danie Craven in 1984. He realised that whites-only rugby was unsustainable.

In August 1988 Craven, chairperson of the (white) SA Rugby Board, shocked the establishment when he warned clubs "to get their houses in order" and end racial discrimination. If not, the SARB would take disciplinary action against them. Then in October of the same year, he drew the ire of then-education minister FW de Klerk when he met Thabo Mbeki, Steve Tshwete and Alfred Nzo to discuss the normalising of sport in the country. The meeting took place two years before De Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison.

"Springbok Saga" is a wonderful book, with grand images of Springbok successes in the first half of the 20th century, tales of come-form-behind wins against the odds, and wonderful quotes by legends of the game (like Morné du Plessis, captain against the British Lions in 1980: "We have the speed to cover you all the time, and the speed to rip you open when you falter").

Rugby, however, remains a sport steeped in apartheid history and seemingly still struggling to rid itself completely of its divisive legacy.

But our history is almost silent on black rugby. There have been numerous efforts to right this wrong, with academics and journalists attempting to shine a light on the black legends that surely would have made it into "Springbok Saga" if this country hadn't been cursed with apartheid and segregation. The SA Rugby Union has also given recognition to black players, handing them the Bok blazers that were denied them in the era before unity in the sport.

Rugby, however, remains a game steeped in apartheid history and seemingly still struggling to rid itself completely of its divisive legacy. Yes, there have been strides — and many diligent administrators, school masters and coaches are working hard to create the inclusive environment within which this wonderful sport can thrive. But the jury seems to be out whether or not efforts are succeeding.

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Forging unity in rugby: FW de Klerk, Ben Schutte, Ebrahim Patel, Danie Craven and Steve Tshwete pictured at Gold Reef City.

This is why the appointment of Siya Kolisi from Western Province as the Springbok Test captain is important. We will one day move beyond "first black to do this" or "first black to do that".

But Kolisi's appointment is different, and with reason. His suitability for the job is beyond question and not up for debate. If anything, he should have been appointed last year: he's been a tigerish flanker for a good couple of seasons now, and an inspirational captain for the Stormers over the same period.

He is also the first black rugby player tapped to lead his country into international battle. He will do so on the back of a sport that has been divided since its inception, and one that was thought to be the preserve of one part of the population. He is a sportsman, but the position of Bok captain in this country is so much more. He will represent the whole country, of course, but he will also represent generations of men who were denied the opportunity to don the old green jersey.

If Roos could have offered advice to his successor today, it surely would be that Kolisi isn't leading a group of white or black rugby players — he is leading a group of Springboks. And that's special.